Monthly Archives: October 2017

The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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Warcross by Marie Lu

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Warcross by Marie Lu
Putnam, 2017.

I enjoyed Marie Lu’s Legend series and thought it was one of the better YA dystopian series. Warcross, the electrifying start of a new series, is set in a just-over-the-horizon future and toggles between a sort of Blade Runneresque Tokyo and a virtual reality game called Warcross that the world is obsessed with.

Emi Chen is scraping a living bounty hunting in New York, when she uses her hacking skills to exploit a glitch in Warcross. She is immediately invited to Tokyo by the young (and dishily charismatic, of course) designer of Warcross, Hideo Tanaka. He wants her to participate in the Warcross world championship to catch a hacker called Zero who seems to have nefarious ideas and Emi is chosen to be in the Phoenix Riders team to take part in the tournament.

The most exhilarating parts of the novel are set in the games themselves and it’s a little Hunger Gamesy, though apparently without the threat of imminent death. Ms Lu comes from a game design background and it shows in her wildly imaginative set-ups and fluent descriptions.

Emi is a feisty, thoughtful, and sympathetic protagonist. There are way too many undeveloped characters, at least initially, though as we progress into the world championships this settles down a bit. There is a notable diversity of skin tones, countries of origin, and physical ablebodiedness. Hideo himself, however, comes straight out of central casting as leading man with a tragic background.

There are a few glitches in the plotting – most notably in the revelation of Zero’s identity, which at this stage just doesn’t make sense (in fact, the person who I had tabbed for this fits soooo much better). Additionally, and this may be addressed in the next novel (did I say that this was a series? Well, of course, it’s a series), the novel doesn’t address why, or even how, Warcross is such a global phenomenon to the extent that apparently everyone, even old fogies like me play it or at least watch it. The ending sets us up for the sequel, albeit with a rather tedious dump of exposition.

But I’m mostly quibbling here – Ms Lu is a fine author and when she’s on her home territory she pulled me in and had me thrilled by her VR game.

Will I read the sequel? Past experience suggests that the stakes will be upped from personal to national or even global, which probably means less actual time in Warcross, so it’s probably a no for me, though I’ll take a view when it comes out.

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp
Sourcebooks Fire, January 2018

A creepily atmospheric YA paranormal chiller which draws much of its menace from its setting in a tiny tight-knit community in the wilds of Alaska during the long winter when there are few hours of daylight. Corey returns to Lost Creek, “an almost all-white conservative town with little room for wayward girls,” for the funeral of Kyra, her troubled best friend and almost immediately realizes it was a suicide not an accident. Corey becomes increasingly troubled by the town inhabitants’ attitude towards Kyra in both life and death and, even though she herself left only a few months ago, their closing against her as an “outsider.” This is interspersed with flashbacks to the previous two years during which Kyra’s alternate manic episodes and depressions had become increasingly severe. Niekamp (This Is Where It Ends, 2016) draws nuanced portraits of both bipolar Kyra, looking only for acceptance of herself as she is, and Corey, convincingly conflicted between being there for her friend and craving normality. Some interesting sub-plots around sexuality are undeveloped and the novel occasionally breaks into a screenplay format for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, this will appeal to teens who enjoy magical realism with a side of eerie. Reviewed from an ARC.

The Border by Steve Schafer

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The Border by Steve Schafer
Sourcebooks Fire, 2017

After their families are gunned down by a drug gang, four teens attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert from Mexico into the US in this intense but flawed YA novel.

Characterization is thin but serviceable: Pato is the thoughtful narrator, his cousin and best friend Arbo is dependable, Marcos is a tough guy and his independent sister, Gladys, is Pato’s somewhat perfunctory love interest.

The trek, which forms the bulk of the narrative, is grueling as the teens run out of water in the intense heat and have run-ins with both human and animal predators, all the while having little idea what they will face if they make it to the US.

Debut author Schafer’s note details his research and he successfully puts a human face on undocumented immigration, but he has also unfortunately focused on all the negative stereotypes of Mexico: drug cartels, corruption, and “illegal passage”. Spanish is mostly used for cursing.

While it is important for American teen readers to have more context to aid understanding of what drives immigrants, the novel does both readers and immigrants a disservice by focusing on this “single story.” Reviewed from an ARC.

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